Maximizing Tension When Lifting

Throughout many articles on this site, I bring up the concept of tension. I find myself suggesting a tip to best create it, or that you should avoid doing something to emphasize tension instead. I remind the reader that tension ranks as the most important consideration for improving muscle size and strength.

Although you may have come to understand its importance, perhaps you wonder how exactly should I maximize it?

Our muscles contract to create tension. This generates force to lift, hold, and lower resistances. Components called actin and myosin bind together to form the sites that generate this tension after receiving a signal from the nervous system.

The total tension possible from all your fibers for a given muscle group depends on how much muscle you have. It also depends on your efficiency. Factors such the quality and training of the nervous system along with your hormones can influence this efficiency. You can develop some of these factors but many are innate.

As shown through research and countless examples, creating tension is the main stimulus for more size and strength. In the long run, the feeling of creating tension should make you feel weaker, if only slightly, as opposed to gauging it based on the pump or soreness.

Maximizing tension should be the only goal of lifting weights. Other aspects of fitness, such as cardio and flexibility, improve best through other means. Take these steps to maximize tension when lifting.


In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • Train to failure.

This achieves two goals:

  • It recruits the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
  • It slows down the exercise enough to optimize force for these fibers.

Training to positive failure ensures that you recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers according to motor unit recruitment. This also seems to strike the right balance between just enough stress yet not too much.

You can create enough tension that stimulates growth at a level below failure, but working your hardest to accomplish this goal ensures that you have at least achieved the minimum along with other advantages.

The rep speed used to reach failure matters less than you may think. I advise moving neither too slow nor too fast for most of the set. The intention for speed at the end though is vital, even when you move slowly.

This maximizes tension as the force-velocity relationship shows that slower contractions generate more force. By slowing down yet working hard at the end, we both hit the fast-twitch muscle fibers most responsible for growth and have them produce the most tension as well.

  • Use a heavy enough weight.

While effort matters more than the load, this assumes that the load is not too light. Otherwise, you would need too long a duration to achieve failure. This would tap into the energy coming from the latter stages of energy production. These include glycolysis and the aerobic system. Fatigue from these sources may end the exercise as opposed to a lack of tension. The limiting factors on an exercise tend to improve the most.

Avoid advanced techniques that create more of a pump or burn related to lactic acid or cause you to feel sorer on the days afterward. Some consider metabolic stress and muscle damage that occurs through these steps as secondary yet significant growth factors. I would suggest ignoring these though and concentrating just on tension. Focusing on them will impede your true goal and encourages overtraining. These factors have more in common with endurance, which has nothing to do with building strength and size and gets trained better through intervals. Ignore any distinction between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy as well. It remains unproven.

Both very high reps and very low reps have disadvantages. Choose a moderate range within 5-15. Start anywhere here based on personal preference. Adjust as you see fit with more experience. As you adapt and get bigger, you need to add weight to your lifts. Any other factor acting as a barometer for progress instead of adding more weight in good form only distracts you.

I suggest a single tough set. This will allow enough tension to form yet limit unrelated fatigue. Rest as long as needed between exercises during the workout.

Tension demands more recovery than other components of fitness. I suggest lifting once a week in the long run for all trainees. You may get away with more sessions per week early on but this will plateau quickly.

  • Have some negative work.

Negative work creates less overall tension. It demands more of it from fewer fibers though. If you train hard enough, all the possible fibers will get recruited in time anyway.

Many confuse increasing the tension of the muscle as a whole with increasing the tension per fiber. We should focus on the latter. Those with this mistaken belief will recommend very low reps with very heavy weights done as explosively as possible. This will threaten your safety.

  • Stick closely to the midpoint of the exercise.

The length-tension relationship establishes that muscles create more tension at their medium lengths. This medium length occurs at the midpoint of a good exercise. Exercises that allow too much range of motion for a joint will isolate muscles. These work poorly for creating tension and can harm you.

Avoid passive and active insufficiency. Use a normal range of motion, not the fullest possible range of motion. Use medium grips, stances, and positions. This will maximize compression over shear to protect the joints. Relevant to our goal of more tension, it also cuts off the endpoints. This has you focus on the productive midrange.

  • Use lots of muscle at once.

This may stimulate positive hormonal changes, but mainly works to increase stability and help you through concurrent activation potentiation.

Restrict yourself to compound exercises only.

  • Keep stable.

Stability allows the prime movers to express their full potential. Without stability, skills such as coordination and balance along with the limitations of the small stabilizers meant to play a support role overwhelm the exercise, making it far less effective.

Use bilateral exercises. Make sure to brace the surrounding muscles outside the active ones. I suggest using free weights over bodyweight exercises.

  • Keep the joints safe.

You cannot contract hard when the joints feel vulnerable. Keep a good posture. Avoid exercises such as the overhead press and the leg extension that place you into extreme positions.

Use free weights along with the compound exercises. This will give you freedom of movement. Otherwise will lock your joints into a poor movement pattern.

Make Progress by Maximizing Tension

Making sure to have all of these steps may seem involved at first. Only the justifications are complex though. The solution is rather simple.

Use only three exercises for complete strength training: a push, a pull, and a squat. I suggest the barbell bench press, the barbell back squat, and the single-armed dumbbell row. Learn good form on these exercises, then train to failure with any reasonable number of reps. Add weight to these over time.

Progress seems complicated though because people lack self-discipline. They refuse to sleep long and well enough, eat enough of the right foods, and rest as needed. They also expect quick results. Maximize tension by following these steps, but never forget that the real war occurs to do this, not in knowing it.

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